Next week, people from all over the country will convene in Washington, D.C.—and many more will log in to participate virtually—at a White House Summit on Working Families. Under the banner of “creating a 21st century workplace that works for all Americans,” we’ll hear from businesses, economists, advocates, workers and, yes, labor leaders to discuss policy solutions that can make a difference in the lives of working families. It’s an important conversation and I look forward to seeing great examples of companies that give their employees meaningful benefits, fathers who take family leave when a new baby arrives and communities coming together to support workers struggling to get by.
But when the speeches are done, the focus of national news wanes and the participants all go home, it won’t have been enough to have had a successful discussion about important topics. We have to be ready to build on the momentum of the important discussion and turn these from exceptional examples into real, everyday practices. It’s crucial that we help working families who are quickly falling further and further behind. This is a challenge that is personal to me, because it wasn’t that long ago when I was piecing together part-time jobs, struggling to find my way into work that would lead to a career. And in my early years of working to help clerical workers organize to gain better wages and benefits, I saw firsthand how intimidating it can be for workers to even ask for a better deal, much less demand one.
To help working families thrive, three areas stand out as critical. And while I look forward to talking about them next week, I’m also looking forward to acting on a robust agenda to strengthen women and working families in the weeks and months that follow.
Support working families by creating equal opportunity for women. It’s almost a cliché, but the stubborn reality is that women are the sole or primary breadwinners for a record 40% of all U.S. households. If we brought women’s earnings in line with what men earn, working women below the poverty line would see a bump in average yearly wages of about $11,600, enough to make a huge difference in their lives, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Moreover, women face pregnancy discrimination, and also hold a majority of the jobs that do not offer paid leave or paid sick leave. Basic paid leave laws would ensure workers don’t have to choose between staying home to recover and having their pay reduced.
Lift working families out of poverty by demanding a fair deal for low-wage workers. Over the past few years, low-wage workers have been among the fastest growing segments of the job market, and until we get them a better deal, the United States will continue to swell the ranks of the working poor. This means getting Walmart workers enough working hours and predictable schedules to earn better than $25,000 a year, with basic benefits. It means helping to raise the hourly wage for tipped workers—three-quarters of whom are women. The wage—$2.13—has remained the same for more than two decades. It means raising the minimum wage high enough so that workers do not have to rely on government assistance to raise their families.
Create better economic opportunity for all though collective action. Unions have been a frequent and convenient target for Big Business, politicians and others in the recent past, but the reality is that collective action and joining a union have resulted in higher wages and better conditions for workers across the board. In fact, union membership is one way women in the workforce are moving toward achieving wage parity with men.
And our impact extends beyond the ranks of our members: Through collective advocacy, we’ve helped enact policies that give all workers a fairer shake as well, whether it has been raising local and state minimum wages or increasing access to health care and family friendly policies like the Family Medical Leave Act. I applaud the companies that are paving the way to a better future for their employees, but let’s be clear: History shows us that massive changes that benefit workers are achieved when workers organize, speak up and demand it.
So when the summit convenes next week, I will be honored to be at the table because millions of women and men who are working incredibly hard to provide for their families deserve to be heard.
They also deserve our active, collective support. And that’s exactly what the labor movement is prepared to do. We will continue to stand up for all workers so that everyone has a voice on the job to improve conditions for working families.
Elizabeth Shuler is the first woman elected as the AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer and she is the youngest officer to sit on the federation’s Executive Council.